Let’s Explore: Cooking Class

written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

On Monday afternoon, we have cooking class!

We pile into the Mariposa van and drive to a spot on the outskirts of San Juan, where we take a short walk down a dirt road and arrive at a small house. A man directs us to the back, where we find a circle of chairs, a table, a bowl of dough, and a very large artisan oven. Our driver and guide, Josue, explains that we’re learning to bake three different traditional Nicaraguan bocadillos (snacks): empanadas, rosquillasand viejitas

We start by washing our hands (always an important first step in cooking) and then mixing the masa (dough), which is made with flour, cheese, butter, oil, eggs, and milk. When we arrived, it was already partially mixed… so we pour all the rest of the ingredients into the giant bowl and four of us knead it with our hands until it’s soft and easily formed into shapes (and Josue gives it his stamp of approval and tells us we’re finished).

It’s quite messy!

The baker then shows us how to take spoonfuls of dough, flatten them into circles, and fill them with a sweet-salty mixture of cheese and sugar — fairly common in Nicaraguan baking (and incredibly yummy… would recommend highly). With the help of a round plastic base, we fold the circles in half around the filling. Then we seal the edges shut with our fingers and lay them one by one in a long rectangular pan. Just like that, we’re finished with our first snack: empanadas.

We make viejitas next (literally translated as “little old ones”, which is rather confusing at first, but that’s just the name of the snack). Taking balls of the same dough, we press them with our fingers and form shallow bowls that would later be filled with a sweet brown sugar (it was very dark and tasted vaguely of molasses — several of the students taste it before we put it in). We place them carefully in the pans, and two students spoon sugar into each one of them before baking.

Finally, we roll all the leftover dough into small doughnut-like circles and put them into the pans as well — these, the baker tells us, are rosquillas
It’s harder than it sounds.
Hannah’s note: if you Google “rosquillas” you’ll see something that looks a little like a doughnut rolled in sugar… but Nica rosquillas are different! They’re crunchy and a little bit salty (because of the cheese in the dough, probably) and definitely more like biscuits than like doughnuts. They were still pretty great, though.

Once we put everything into the pans (we go through all the dough and filled up four large ones!) to the baker’s satisfaction, he and Josue slide each pan into the oven.

Speaking of which, the oven itself is huge… about as tall as I am (5 feet) and easily 6 feet wide and long. It’s also very hot, since the fire has been burning brightly since we arrived, so the baker uses a long staff to push the pans into the side of the oven between the wall and the hot coals.

We wait about twenty minutes for the baking to finish, telling stories while we sit. Then we pour coffee and eat lots (and lots, and lots, and lots) of piping hot pastries… the baker even gives us bags so that we can take some back to La Mariposa with us!

they’re delicious.

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Colonial Cities : A Trip to Granada (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

Less than an hour away from La Mariposa stands Granada, the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua. Rich with history and filled with colonial-era architecture, it’s also a popular destination for La Mariposa students… and for good reason. As we cruise through the narrow streets, each new turn leading us to brightly-painted houses and views of tall cathedrals, our guests point from one thing to another. One student’s excited for the chocolate museum, another one can’t wait to see the fancy buildings; there’s something for everyone.

We start our tour by climbing out of the Mariposa bus and onto a sidewalk, where Chester announces that we’re visiting a cemetery.
“A cemetery??” one person murmurs, “why a cemetery?”
It’s true, the cemetery isn’t exactly the first place you’d expect to start a city tour… but this particular cemetery is actually extremely important in Granada’s history and identity.
You see, Granada was originally founded (colonized) in the indigenous Xalteva area by the Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who named Granada after his hometown. During the colonial period, it became one of the central cities for commerce… later, it disputed political and historical importance with León (its rival city), saw multiple pirate attacks and invasions, and withstood William Walker’s attempt to burn it to the ground.
sidenote by Hannah: Nicaraguan history is incredible and you should look it up. Also, William Walker was a US American and a Very Bad Person.

The Europeans were the ones to build the enormous cemetery of Granada, as well. Today, it’s the only one of its kind in Nicaragua, marked by chapels and religious statues, mausoleums and marble. The graves near the center of the cemetery are the most elaborate ones, owned by extremely wealthy (and often famous) families — Fruto Chamorro, the first official president of Nicaragua, was buried there. The other graves, with names and dates in a larger structure, belong to soldiers, or are rented out to various families. And the smallest ones on the outskirts of the cemetery, marked sometimes only with a cross or a stake, belong to the poorest families. Inequality persists into the next world, it seems!

After this brief lesson on colonialism, cemeteries, and capitalism, we climb back into the buses.
We hop out again briefly to see the Fortaleza de Pólvora. Originally built to store gunpowder, as the name suggests, this fortress was used to accommodate soldiers and later to imprison people. Today, it acts as a museum with a rotating schedule of exhibits, open to the public. We couldn’t go in that day, though (it was closed?) so we took some pictures and moved on.

We take a quick break at the cigarmaker’sNicaragua is well-known for its handcrafted cigars, apparently, and a pleasant man explains the process while another demonstrates how to bind the tobacco, press it into molds, and wrap it. He hands around a fragrant leaf for us to look at; it’s dark, papery, and unexpectedly sweet smelling. For $5 USD, he adds, you can even buy/make your own cigar here!
(A few students try it, but most of us are content to hang back and watch.)

Our next stop is a church, the Iglesia la Merced. Albeit the facade looks rather old and a little crumbling, it’s lovely and quiet inside, with dark wooden benches, several statues, and a stained glass window. There’s also a small sign advertising the “best view of Granada”, and for thirty Córdoba (about $1 USD) paid to the man at the front, you can climb a short (but narrow and pretty steep!) set of stairs to the bell tower and see the view for yourself. Once we’ve gotten to the top, we can look east towards the Granada Cathedral — the bright yellow and white one near the central plaza — and Lake Cocibolca, or south towards the Mombacho Volcano. Tiled rooftops and colored houses are all around. It’s definitely worth the climb.

From the cathedral, it’s a quick walk to the chocolate museum, the Granada ChocoMuseocomplete with a pool, a hotel, a small café, and a shop where they sell everything from chocolate bars to “Nicatella” to chocolate liqeur to cacao tea. After a brief (and energetic) history of chocolate and some enthusiastic sampling, we browse the shop a bit and then we’re ready for lunch.
We head to the Cafe D’Arte and make ourselves comfortable for an hour or two (and talk to some street vendors who are selling ceramic bird whistles and handmade vases and personalized maracas —  I love the whistles and I can’t help buying one). Then those of us who are heading to the islands pile back into the bus and head for the lake… it’s time for a boat tour!

The islands are mostly owned by Nicaragua’s rich and famous, or rich and famous foreigners who decided that they’d like a personal island in Nicaragua, and our guide seems to enjoy pointing out random islands and namedropping as we go. He also points out the view of the volcano — “we were there last weekend!” one boy notes — and the other islands along Lake Nicaragua. We spot several birds, a heron, and a few spider monkeys, too.

It’s fun for all of us, even the excited four-year-old across from me who keeps leaning out the side of the boat to put his hands in the water; he leans so far that I reflexively grab onto the back of his lifejacket to keep him in the boat, and decide that it’s probably a good idea for me to keep an eye (and a hand) on him at all times. “I wanna swim!” he tells me, and I start to laugh. But he gets his wish when we dock at a small hostel and restaurant, where a small swimming pool (built, apparently, around a huge rock) invites all of us to splash around.

After all, there’s something for everyone in Granada.

 

Beach Day! A Trip to La Boquita (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

La Boquita Beach, a little less than half an hour away from the pueblo (town) of Diriamba (which in turn is only about twenty minutes from La Mariposa), is one of the most popular visitor beaches in our area, so we have a trip there as well! It’s raining when our two microbuses set out — especially during wet season in Nicaragua, which is May-November, showers are frequent and often unpredictable — and so when we arrive, there’s practically no one here except for our group. But the younger students run right into the waves and the older students pick their tables in the outdoor restaurant on the shore and it’s pretty clear that, rain or no rain, we’re having our beach day.

There are several different restaurants on the beach, each with a series of thatched-roof shelters and light wood tables, framed by hammocks or bamboo seats and large pots of flowering plants. A pleasant family greets us and hands us menus, so we make ourselves comfortable there.

Thankfully, the rain goes away both suddenly and quickly (also fairly typical for wet season) and the sun is out and shining brightly within the first hour or so of our stay. One of the boys rents a four-wheeler to drive up and down the beach (although there are also horseback rides available), and more of our students join one another in the water. I find an assortment of shells near the rocks along the shore and wave at a group of little girls splashing in the waves.

The beach day is probably the most laid-back weekend trip we have; it’s the least structured, and so it allows guests the most amount of freedom. It’s surprising how quickly the time passes here (and between orders of pineapple juice,  and trips to the little pulperia, corner shop, our students manage to keep busy). Several of us stretch out towels on the sand and soak up the sunshine until it gets too hot to stay there much longer, while the others decide to walk up the beach and see what they can find, collecting coral and shells along the way. The sand is warm and soft under our feet.

Lunch is delicious, if a little bit more… well, whole than we might have expected… but no one else seems surprised. Here at La Boquita, the seafood is fresh and the more common grilled meat is equally tasty (and the rice, as per usual, is excellent).
Yes, that is a whole fried fish. Also, in case you were wondering, that orange dish is not in fact a real mango. I was disappointed too. But the sauce still tastes great, trust me!

Since I’m from Portland, where the ocean is usually way too cold to swim, it’s new to be able to bob up and down in the waves, which if not warm are definitely swimming-pool temperature. I mention this to the others and they laugh, but I’m dead serious… this isn’t something I’m used to! This becomes clear when a giant wave knocks me and another student off our feet and sends us spinning head-over-heels and inhaling saltwater, but it lasts only about seven seconds before we surface, more surprised than injured.

Oh well, you win some you lose some. I’d rather be swimming in the ocean than sitting in the rain, and besides, what else can you expect from a beach day?

 

 

Hurry, we’re going to Mombacho! (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

Just south of Granada, you can find the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve — one of the weekend trips that we offer (there are four!). Standing almost 1400 meters above sea level and bordering Lake Cocibolca, it’s covered in forest and it’s absolutely beautiful.

It takes us a little while to round up everyone and leave La Mariposa, which is sort of stressful because we have to stop by the cajero (ATM) for the students and then get to Mombacho in time for the shuttle transport up the mountain. “Hurry, hurry”, Paulette tells us and we tell each other. Finally, everyone’s hurried enough to climb into the bus, and we’re off!

We drive for about 40 minutes through the Pueblos Blancos to get there… Oscar points out the furniture, plants, sweets, and other artisan work displayed in stands along the main street. When we arrive at the volcano, we’re greeted by a fairly large parking lot and a fairly small kiosk — we park in the former and make our way over to the latter in order to pay our entry fee.

The fee itself is $20 for transport to the top (and back down) but $5 if you’re interested in hiking the 5.5km to the top and back… with inclines of up to 45 degrees near the end of the trail. (As someone who has done the hike, I’d highly highly recommend riding in the truck — the hike is possible, but not particularly enjoyable, and most people who have finished it decide that they’re Definitely Not Interested in hiking back down.)

When we arrive at the top, we’re met by several guides who directs us to the main tourist center… there, a guide points out the various types of flora and fauna unique to the volcano (the peak 850km is area protected by the reserve). There are three different trails: El Crater, El Tigrillo, and El Puma. While you need a guide to hike the last two, the first is free… it’s also the shortest trail, at 1.5 hours, and the most accessible. I end up hiking it twice, once with the group that arrived via the truck transport, and again about two hours later when the hiking group got to the top.

“The air feels lighter”, one of the students points out, and it does… everything is cooler and lighter at the top of the mountain. You might even need a raincoat (yes, in Nicaragua!!) or at least a light jacket. In the quiet shade of the trees and surrounded by tall ferns, it feels thousands of miles away from the city… later, when you emerge from the trees to explore the fumaroles (heat vents — they smell like sulfur and vent smelly hot air into your face if you try to look down into them), you’ll be greeted by open skies, orange flowers, and probably gusts of wind.

Mombacho is known for its “cloud forest” — a lush green tropical forest often masked in fog — and especially in the winter, wet season, those clouds can form quickly. For our morning hike, everything is clear (there’s a viewpoint from which you can see all the way to Granada and Laguna de Apoyo), but two hours later the mountain (and all lookout points) are completely covered in mist and it feels like we’re floating in the middle of nowhere. Either way, it’s pretty lovely.

A group of American teenage guys bolt past me, panting heavily up the stairs, and I laugh as a group of other students follow. “Hurry up”, one of the girls calls to someone behind her. Maybe that’s the nature of tourist groups, hurrying. It certainly isn’t a particularly Nicaraguan thing to do… both Oscar this morning and our guides this afternoon seem calm.

The family with me has gone on ahead and there’s plenty of time to sit and eat, so halfway along the trail I find a small bench, kick off my shoes, and eat my lunch… it’s endlessly peaceful, swinging bare feet over the path and greeting guides with an “Adiós” as they hike past me. Outside of the tour that went by before me, it’s also really, really quiet — the only sound is the rustle of wind in branches and the occasional deep bark of what I think are howler monkeys. The dwarf forest, named because the trees grow shorter here (due to heavy winds and lack of nutrients), filter sunshine down onto my head. 

I close my eyes and breathe in the forest.

Now is a time for rest.
There’ll be plenty of time to hurry later.

“Wonderful”: the Panama Project

written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

Because La Mariposa has multiple focuses, and there are a variety of initiatives that are proposed by people in the local community, we have quite a range of projects. Our newest one opened about three months ago…  it’s called the Panama project, and it focuses specifically on offering English classes (usually to children between the ages of 5-12).

The original Panama project began when a friend of Paulette’s (who now does one of the homestays — his name is Hector) asked Paulette to visit the school he taught at. The school itself was in Panama, one of the poorest barrios in La Concha, and the lack of resources there was staggering; the only teaching materials available in his classroom were a chalkboard (no chalk) and a ruler.

Hector asked it’d be possible for La Mariposa to support the school by providing things like books, paper, pencils, and chalk, and pointed out that some of the students in the community were affected by a lack of resources as well.

He noted that there were two young sisters who only came to school on alternating days; he had realized it was because they only had one set of clothes between them.

With this in mind, La Mariposa began to collect donations and accumulate resources. In addition to providing student supplies and various classroom materials, they used funds to mend the roof, paint the school, put in latrines, and build a dining area for the children. The school continues to use these today — however, a few years ago, the project itself was forced to close due to some issues with the Nicaraguan education administrators.

After the first project ended, La Mariposa began to work with a family who lived in the local area and were close with the Mariposa community; their names are Doña Maria and Don Martin. LM rented a small piece of land from them and built an area to hold classes (Doña Maria takes care of class area upkeep as well).

The program launched this past April, and there are currently 5 English teachers for 50-60 children (and sometimes adults!) every afternoon.

The children themselves are extremely bright and energetic — “Good afternoon”, they shouted at me when I said hello — and intently focused on learning. Initially, I was hesitant about the concept of them having to learn English (colonization of language and all that), and Paulette tells me that she was too… but many Nicaraguans in the local community supported the idea of English lessons, and insisted that this would be a good idea.

During my ride in the microtaxi, I asked Tania (one of the primary teachers — she’s the one in the orange shirt) about this. Why did she think it was important for the children to learn English?

In secondary school, she told me, English is often taught — these classes offer children a background in the language and some extra preparation that will become more and more important as they continue in their education. In addition, learning English often expands the amount of opportunities available for Nicaraguan students; “they don’t have to be fluent, but one or two words here and there are helpful to know”.

Tania herself studies English at the local university every evening after she finishes teaching at the Panama project… and even though this means her days are incredibly long, she cares about the children and she thinks this project is important and she keeps doing it.

Even the littlest students — the ones who are too young to read or write — are learning.

“Ask them a question,” their teacher requested, and I hesitantly queried, “Um… how are you?”
They smiled big and the boy next to me shouted, “I’m fine thank you!” The little girls next to him responded, “I’m good!” “I’m great!”, and the last one threw her arms into the air and exclaimed, “I’m WONDERFUL!”

wonderful.

 

 

if you’re interested in helping these kids by donating to the Panama Project (and the other projects that La Mariposa regularly sustains) you can do so by going to our homepage and scrolling down to find the “donate” button… thank you so much!